Analyzing the Human Condition

Tim Orr
Tim Orr

There are all kinds of reasons one decides to embark
on a film career. For cinematographer Tim Orr, it was boredom: “I
spent my early 20s working boring jobs, playing music, writing,
painting, taking photographs, getting my heart broken, trying to
figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. The more I opened
myself up to the arts, the more films I saw, the more I had the
feeling that filmmaking was what I wanted to do with my life.”

Though originally determined to become a writer/director,
it was while he was a student at the North Carolina School of the
Arts that Orr’s career path changed. “After I started working with
the camera and learning about lighting, it wasn’t long before I
knew that what I really wanted was to become a cinematographer.”
It was also in film school that Orr forged a friendship with David
Gordon Green, the writer/director who would ask Orr to shoot his
first film, the critically acclaimed George Washington. With
Green and Orr’s latest collaboration, All the Real Girls, in
theaters now, and Peter Sollett’s Raising Victor Vargas on
the verge of release, Tim Orr spoke with MM about
the technical side of his craft and the tradeoffs of being “independent.”

Jennifer Wood (MM): Actors and
directors often talk about the many freedoms that working in the
"independent" arena offers. What do you see as the main
benefits for a cinematographer?

Tim Orr (TO): I think it’s primarily
about creative freedom, just as much for the cinematographer as
the writer, the director and the actors. Independent films tend
to have more artistic integrity. The stories are usually more interesting.
There isn’t a studio breathing down your back dictating what film
stock you shoot or threatening to fire you over what they deem to
be too dark. You can take more chances. It also tends to bring filmmakers
together that are truly in it for the love of cinema. At higher
levels it can become more of a job.

MM: What are the drawbacks?

TO: Lack of time and money. It’s hard to get the equipment
you need, and shooting ratios are slim. The hours are also usually
longer and the accommodations less comfortable. I slept in a basement
on a pullout sofa, dodging drips of water from rusty pipes during George Washington. It can be tough and exhausting, but if
you’re doing what you love and working on something that inspires
you, it’s worth the hard work and lack of sleep.

MM: If you had an unlimited budget, what are some
of the luxuries you would want to indulge in?

TO: Tests! I’d just love the indulgence/opportunity
to do a true battery of tests for a film. When I hear about the
elite cinematographers who get three weeks just to shoot tests—trying
out every film stock, lens, process, etc.—I get weak in the knees.
I usually get only one or two days.

MM: How did you first meet David Gordon Green and
how did you begin your collaboration ?

TO: David and I met in film school. We were friends,
but for the most part ran in different circles. We had one collaboration
in film school, a documentary concerning the artificial insemination
of cows. It was fun, but quite disgusting. Nothing like a large
farm animal with a man’s arm up it’s ass.

Following film school we found ourselves in Los Angeles.
After a Thanksgiving Day camping trip to Joshua Tree, David pitched
me the idea of a movie about a kid that runs around in his underwear,
wanting to become a superhero. We started talking about it, kicking
around ideas. A month later he showed up with the script and told
me he’s gonna make the movie in June or join the Marines. He asked
me to shoot it, and of course I said yes.

MM: Why do you think this collaboration has continued?

TO: We work well together. We tend to have the same
tastes and share a similar vision. I know what he’s thinking visually,
because that’s generally the way I see the world. There is an economy
in our dialogue; a shorthand that allows him to concentrate on working
with the actors while I’m setting up the shot. He gives me a lot
of creative freedom and trusts me to come up with something in the
composition and lighting that will underscore what he’s trying to
get at emotionally in a scene.

MM: What is it that generally attracts you to a
project?

TO: The first thing is a good story. If it’s not on
the page, then odds are good that it’s not going to be on the screen.
I look for a story [with which] I can find some sort of emotional
connection. The next thing is the director, the actors and the company
that is mounting the production. Working with good, talented people
is paramount.

I also consider the cinematic elements of the story:
the potential locations, the style and the opportunity to do something
new. My tastes are toward realism, and I tend to gravitate toward
films that deal with and analyze the human condition.

MM: Do you have a preferred camera?

TO: I don’t necessarily have a preferred camera, except
when it comes to shooting anamorphic. I like to use a Moviecam when
I’m working in anamorphic because I prefer their viewing system.
Panavison and Arri cameras are both great, as well. Panavision’s
Millenium XL and the new Arricams are really wonderful pieces of
equipment.

The lenses are the most important thing to me. I usually
prefer Cooke glass. Zeiss glass has some wonderful applications
as well, but I like the way the Cookes take light. They seem to
be a bit softer in contrast, but sharp at the same time.

MM: What about a favorite film stock?

TO: My favorite stock right now is Kodak’s 5246, the
250 Daylight stock. It’s a very rich, gorgeous stock with incredible
detail. The level of color saturation and contrast responds well
to the way I see the world.

I have also used a bit of Fuji on David Gordon Green’s
first two films. The great thing about using the Fuji stocks on George Washington and All the Real Girls was that
they tended to feel a bit less contemporary. I think they are a
bit softer contrast and the color response lends itself to characteristics
of older stocks from the ’70s—the golden age of cinema, in my opinion.

MM: What criteria do you use in determining which
stock to use?

TO: I will choose stocks based upon the style of the
storytelling and the needs of the location. In general I prefer
fast film, because I like to work with really low light levels.

MM: Have you shot any digital features?

TO: No, I’ve yet to shoot a digital feature. I shot
several documentaries in the digital format, and I think for documentaries,
especially, digital is wonderful. I am more than happy shooting
film, although I would certainly be interested in trying my hand
at a digital feature.

I’ve only seen a few good examples of digital cinematography
thus far, although of course I haven’t seen everything. The Celebration, Personal Velocity, Dancer in the Dark and 28 Days
Later
are the best examples of digital cinematography I’ve seen.
I think that you have to use digital for the right reasons, and
use it in a way where you are using DV’s strengths and inherent
qualities to your advantage. Setting out to mimic film with digital
video usually ends up with poor results.

MM: On any of the movies you shot on film, were
you ever close to opting for DV instead?

TO: On the films that I’ve done, digital was never
an option—even on the films that had DV budgets! George Washington was certainly a DV budget, but we weren’t interested in going in
that direction. We found a way to shoot film. It made certain aspects
of the production harder, but I think it paid off in the end.

For Raising Victor Vargas, we shot Super16
and there was a debate about shooting 35mm or 16mm. We opted for
Super16 for several reasons, some budgetary, but mainly to have
the luxury of a bigger shooting ratio and because most of the interior
locations were very small and using 35mm equipment would have been
too cumbersome and created an undue, intrusive burden on the performances.

MM: Were there any other challenges you faced on Raising Victor Vargas?

TO: The biggest challenge with Raising Victor Vargas,
for me, was keeping the set as free and clear of moviemaking gear,
lights, grip equipment, etc. as possible. The actors’ performances
were the most important things to Pete, so my job was to allow the
actors as much freedom of movement as possible. It made lighting
more difficult, especially since we were shooting in Super16. To
get a good blow up you actually need more light because you’re working
with a smaller negative. That was a bit tough, but I embraced the
challenge and I’m very happy with the results.

MM: What are you working on now?

TO: I am currently working on another film with David
Gordon Green called The Undertow, starring Jamie Bell, Josh
Lucas and Dermot Mulroney. It’s a tale about a couple of kids on
the run from a villainous uncle who killed their father for a stash
of cursed gold coins. It’s set in the outlying areas of Savannah,
Georgia—swamps, railroads and mud pits. A lovely adventure in the
tradition of Night of the Hunter, Huckleberry Finn and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

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